My friend John Fotheringham wrote this fine piece a few years ago, and I think it warrants revisiting. As always, John gets right to the heart of the matter in dispelling some of the myths regarding formal foreign language instruction.
Copyright © 2011 by John Fotheringham. For more tips, tools, and tech for Mastering ANY Language, go to LanguageMastery.com
Language schools can be a wonderful place to learn more about your target language, meet fellow learners (who can become both study partners or even lifelong friends), and get your linguistic and cultural feet wet before (or even while) immersing yourself in a new culture and foreign tongue.
However, language schools can also be a major impediment to the very goal you go there to achieve: learning a foreign language as quickly and efficiently as possible. This may come as a shock to those who have been conditioned to believe that classrooms are the only place, or at least the best place, to learn a language.
Here are the top ten disadvantages of formal, classroom-based language learning (at least in my view):
1. You don’t need a teacher or school to learn a foreign language
There is an important distinction to be made between learning and schooling. Those who believe they need formal training in a language are making the false assumption that the two are one and the same. To reach fluency in a language, you need to acquire a great deal of tacit knowledge, that special kind of internalized, experience-based information that you may not be conscious of. The sad truth is that most teachers focus on explicit knowledge (e.g. facts about the language such as grammar rules), which has very little to do with one’s ability to speak a language. Explicit knowledge is easier to teach and test, however, which probably explains why it makes up the bulk of school curricula.
2. You don’t need to learn grammar rules
At some point in history, the education establishment convinced society that they needed to be “taught” languages. This was quite an amazing feat considering that all human beings are endowed by evolution (or God if you prefer) with the ability to automatically acquire any language they hear in adequate quantities. The problem for most learners (and the reason they buy into the “I need more schooling!” mentality) is that they never get an “adequate quantity” of language input. The irony is that this input deficiency is often caused by the very classes that are supposed to provide it. With a focus on memorizing grammar rules, most learners end up spending the vast majority of their time learning about a language instead of the language itself.
3. Tests and grades do more harm than good
Ideally, formalized testing and grading systems motivate students by providing competition and objective feedback. In reality, however, most grading is far from objective (teachers tend to reward students they like and penalize those they don’t), and tests do little more than demonstrate one’s ability to memorize facts. Feedback is important, but it needn’t be in the form of traditional testing or grades. Ask your teachers to evaluate your performance by giving specific examples of things you said right or wrong, not with multiple choice tests.
4. Classes go as fast as the slowest person
The bigger the class, the wider the range of abilities, and the slower the class will have to go. Schools know that students are more likely to stick with something too easy but will quickly throw in the towel if something is too difficult. And despite placement tests and numerous class levels, it can be very difficult to appropriately group students by their actual skill in the language. With finite time slots mutually convenient for all students in a given group, some students will inevitably be placed in classes that are above or below their actual ability level. Also, placement tests come with the same problems mentioned in # 3: they test one’s memory and knowledge (especially of the written word).
5. Reading out loud does not improve your pronunciation or speaking ability
Teachers often have students read out loud to allegedly “practice pronunciation.” The truth is that your pronunciation improves only from massive amounts of listening input and then massive amounts of speaking when you’re ready. Reading aloud does little more than show what words you are unfamiliar with and often reinforces mispronunciations instead of fixing them. While some teachers genuinely believe in the read aloud method, others just use it as a zero prep activity to count down the clock.
6. Oral drills do not help you learn how to speak; they only demonstrate your ability to do so
Just as reading aloud does not improve your pronunciation or reading skills, oral drills do little for your speaking fluency. We improve our speaking ability through increasing the quantity and quality of listening input (e.g. podcasts about your favorite topics), and then applying what we have heard in natural, contextualized conversations.
7. You will be encouraged to move up to the next level even if you aren’t ready
This is all about business. Schools make more money when you buy new books, take level tests and re-enroll in more classes.
8. Your progress reports are meaningless
Teachers hate writing progress reports. They are usually an exercise in creative writing, not meaningful feedback on your actual performance and progress in the language. Not knowing what to say (and not wanting to waste time on a task they don’t get paid for!), many teachers will just cut and paste canned comments, or come up with general, vague statements and overly technical descriptions of your grammar and pronunciation problems.
9. You should be the one who chooses the material
Despite being widely used, standardized textbooks are bad tools for a number of reasons. They build on the myth that schooling equals learning, as discussed in # 1 above. They lull students into a false sense of accomplishment, where completion of chapters is confused with actual internalization of the content. And with content written not to entertain but to avoid offending anyone, they are typically boring and sterile. Interest in the material is essential for effective language learning, so make sure to choose schools or teachers that allow you to choose materials that float your boat.
10. It doesn’t take years to learn a foreign language well if you do it right
If you like the language you are learning, believe you can learn it, and get as much listening and reading input as possible, you will learn the language well enough to communicate in a matter of 6 months to a year. Most students, however, end up paying tuition for years and years despite a lack of progress. Students blame themselves (backed up by the bogus comments found in their progress reports), not realizing that the problem lies not in them, but with their school’s materials and methodologies.